All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Review: Untidy Towns by Kate O’Donnell

on October 4, 2017

Untidy Towns
Kate O’Donnell
University of Queensland Press
2017, 298p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/}:

Seventeen-year-old Adelaide is sick of being expected to succeed on other people’s terms. She knows she just has to stick it out at school for one more year and then she’ll be free. Instead, she runs away from her fancy boarding school back to her sleepy hometown to read and dream.

But there are no free rides. When Addie’s grandad gets her a job at the local historical society, she soon finds out that it’s dusty and dull, just like her new life. Things change when she starts hanging out with Jarrod, a boy who seems full of possibilities. But it turns out he’s as stuck as she is. And Addie realises that when you want something in life, you’ve actually got to do something about it.

A heartfelt tale about love, friendship and finding your own way.

I hadn’t heard of this book before it popped up on my doorstep but I was immediately intrigued. It arrived packaged so beautifully, wrapped in paper that looked like the old Melbourne to Warrnambool train timetable, with a postcard, a little button and a page marker that looked like a V-line ticket before Myki became a thing. For pretty much the entire time I’ve lived in Victoria I’ve also lived on the Warrnambool line although I’m close to Melbourne so really it’s another line by the time it gets to me. But for about six months my husband caught the train to and from Warrnambool twice a week and his family also live in Colac, which is on that line so it’s one of those areas that I’m pretty familiar with.

Adelaide is 17 and only has something like 8 months of school to go when she realises that she can’t do it anymore. She walks out of her Melbourne boarding school and gets on a train bound for home. She seems paralysed, suddenly having a crisis of confidence with the weight of expectation. All her life she was referred to as the smart one who would go far, there was talk of medicine and law and all of a sudden she seemed to realise that she didn’t know anymore what she wanted. She just knew that she couldn’t stay at the school a moment longer, nor did she want to enroll at the local high school. It’s unacceptable that she do nothing so her grandfather negotiates a job for her at the local historical society of her small town.

With so much expectation placed on teens sitting their year 12 exams, it feels authentic to read about a teen who chooses not to do it that traditional way anymore, to give herself some time to breathe and decide what she really wants, rather than applying for what people expect and marking time doing a degree that she doesn’t want to do. I admired her for that, because I don’t think it’s the easy option that some people might assume, especially when you return from a fancy Melbourne boarding school. So many people would be asking that dreaded question about “what do you want to be” or “what are you doing when you finish school” and at 17, half the time you don’t know. You don’t know what you want to do for the rest of your life, if what you’re passionate about now will be the same thing you’ll be passionate about at 25, 45, 65. Sometimes, like Addie, you just can’t decide at all what it is that you want to do and she doesn’t seem to want to waste time when she doesn’t know. To be honest I could say so much about the school system and the pressure of deciding what you want to do and competing with the entire state for the chance to be able to do it. So much riding on a score.

I really enjoyed reading a YA novel in a small town setting. I’ve read so many centred around the cities of Melbourne and Sydney that it was really nice to be in a tiny town with a very different feel, atmosphere wise. There’s a university in Warrnambool that seems within commuting distance but for many, furthering their education requires moving to Melbourne, so do many job prospects other than continuing on the family farm. Addie has to address the fact that she kind of distanced herself from her old friends when she moved to Melbourne to go to school but it isn’t long before she slips back into a group to socialise with, a group that includes a boy named Jarrod.

And so there is a romance in this book and it’s funny and sweet and really awkwardly authentic. The two of them are cute together but both of them make mistakes and have to negotiate getting to know each other in this tiny town with parents and grandparents and family reputations. I liked how present Addie’s family were. Her mum was great – definitely far more laid back than my parents would’ve been if I’d told them I was jacking in school in year 12 with so little time to go! But Addie’s mother, whilst being remarkably accepting, also manages to get Addie to agree to what she wants as well in a way that doesn’t involve drama. I also really liked Addie’s evolving attitude towards the historical society throughout the book, as well as her role and how she views the people that give their time to it. This book reminded me that adults can be very present in a YA novel and have a wonderful positive impact on the younger characters.

I think this is a beautifully written book. It beautifully showcases life in a small town for teenagers but I really enjoyed the relationship aspect of the book – family, friendship and romantic. All are wonderfully done and this book definitely left me wanting more from Kate O’Donnell.


Book #164 of 2017

Untidy Towns is book #50 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017

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